Twenty-five years of massive investment after 70 years of neglect under the Soviets has paid off: St Petersburg is once again one of Europe's most beautiful cities, its World Heritage–listed centre a virtual stage set of 300 years of architectural styles. However, like other modern metropolises, it is also prone to the ugly realities of life, including terrorist attacks, corruption scandals, and battles over cultural and political objectives.
There's no doubt that having the country ruled by a modern-day tsar who was born, raised, educated and cut his political teeth in the city has been a fillip to St Petersburg. As a showcase for the country, it hosts international summits and conferences, and enjoys continued federal budgetary favour, second in influence and cachet only to Moscow.
However, it has also made the city into a terrorist target. This threat became bloody reality in April 2017, when a suicide bomber exploded a device on the metro killing 15 and injuring over 50 people. When another bomb was discovered and diffused at Ploshchad Vosstaniya station, the entire metro system was shut down, leaving many commuters stranded. Locals rose to the challenge as buses and taxis drove people home for free, while others helped put up those who remained temporarily stuck in the city. It was a display of the spirit of solidarity and pluck in the face of adversity that has been ingrained in St Petersburg since its survival through the WWII siege of 900 days.
Battle For St Isaac's
A century after its citizens staged the world's first successful communist revolution, locals continue to campaign on the streets over issues they feel passionately about. A current flashpoint is the management of St Isaac's Cathedral. In January 2017, a storm of protest greeted the announcement by the city's governor Georgy Poltavchenko that the iconic golden-domed cathedral would be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church on a free-of-charge, 49-year lease. Daily church services have been allowed in a side chapel of the Cathedral (which is a museum) since 1990, usually attended by less than 50 people. On major holidays larger services take place, too. But, for some, this was deemed insufficient.
The church plans to scrap the entry fee currently charged, laying open to question who will pay for the maintenance of a building that sees some 4 million visitors a year and is a key part of the World Heritage–listed ensemble of buildings in the city centre: answer, the city. Many of the thousands of protesters and some 200,000 who have signed an online petition are also worried about the creeping scope of the Orthodox Church's business and influence in society as it promotes traditional values that are anti-women and LGBT rights.
Krestovsky Stadium Scandal
St Petersburg is one of the key venues for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Three years before Russia was chosen as the location for this prestigious sporting event in 2010, ground had been broken for a new city stadium to be built on Krestovsky Island. Nearly 20 years later and an estimated 550% over budget, that stadium finally opened. Touted as the most expensive stadium ever built, with an official price tag of US$700 (and an unofficial one of as much as US$1.5 billion), the stadium's construction was mired in corruption and poor design, including a leaky retractable roof and a pitch that was unstable when FIFA officials inspected it. Nevertheless, the final of the FIFA Confederation Cup was successfully held here in July 2017.
A New Highway
One of the best views of the giant spaceship-like stadium is when driving across the newly opened Gulf of Finland section of the 47km toll motorway known as the Western High-Speed Diameter. Two of Russia's largest bridge structures – a double-decker 734m span and a 620m cable-stayed bridge – make this spectacular crossing possible and allow visitors to see parts of the city as they never have before, including shipbuilding yards and docks south of the Neva that were for decades off-limits to the public. Hopefully easing traffic congestion in the city centre, the highway now enables drivers to cross the mouth of the Neva River in around 20 minutes. Along with the opening in 2018 of the Lakhta Tower, Russia's tallest building, and the construction of the major 'Golden City' development at the western tip of Vasilyevsky Island, this is one of the key infrastructure projects dragging preserved-in-amber St Petersburg into the 21st century.